As of this writing we do not yet know who planted the bombs that killed over two hundred people in Madrid yesterday. It may have been the Basque terrorists, or it may have been Al Qaeda. Or it may have been some other agent of radical Islam.
If the terrorists turn out to be Basque, then the problem is clearly Spain's, and not ours. But if it was Al Qaeda, or one of its allies or competitors, then we may be on the verge of a frightening new development -- the emergence of catastrophic terror as a deliberate tool for manipulating, or even subverting, the democratic process in European nations, and potentially in our own as well.
Catastrophic terror, unlike ordinary terror, is not intended to take a few token lives; it is deliberately designed to take so many lives at once that it induces an immediate visceral fear in the entire community that they too are under attack. The difference between ordinary and catastrophic terror is akin to the difference between reading in the paper that there has been a murderous home invasion in another city and reading about one that happened next door -- just the night before.
This impact was clear in the days immediately after 9/11; but with the lack of repetition of any similar event, it is natural that this purely visceral shock should diminish. It hasn't happened again, and so gradually our nerves have returned to normal, exactly as happens after we have escaped from a near traffic accident: at first we are all tense and jumpy, then slowly we calm down.
The terror incident in Madrid occurred only three days before the Spanish national elections -- well within the period of time when the Spanish people's nerves will still be on edge from the experience of catastrophic terror. The explosions on Thursday will still be echoing on Sunday.
Perhaps this was a sheer coincidence, and the terrorists had no intention of causing people to change their minds about which candidates to vote for. But if it wasn't a coincidence, then this would compel us to recognize a potentially horrendous new development, namely, the use of catastrophic terror to "persuade" the Spanish people vote against the pro-America policy of Prime Minister Aznar's party.
If this is the case, then the Spanish election Sunday will carry a significance that will transcend the borders of Spain, and which could make it one of the most decisive elections in the short history of modern democracy. For if the Spanish people vote against Aznar's party, then it will appear to the terrorists that they have succeeded in manipulating the domestic policy of an independent nation through an act of catastrophic terror. They will have succeeded in making a nation change its mind about who is to lead them -- and that would be a setback from which our world might never recover.
Factually this may not be the case: the vote may conceivably go against Aznar's party for reasons having nothing to do with today's terror. But to the terrorists, such a doubt will not exist. If Aznar is defeated, they will be convinced that it was their act that produced this result; and, God forbid, they may well be right.
This conclusion is the last conclusion that anyone could possibly want the terrorists to draw, because if they believe that they can alter the outcome of an election in Spain, it will inevitably tempt them to try to alter the outcome of future elections in other nations of Europe by a similar use of catastrophic terror.
Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that they might not also be tempted to use catastrophic terror to affect the next national election in the United States. Indeed, it is all too easy to concoct nightmare scenarios in which a series of coordinated attacks immediately before the election created a climate of such fear and anxiety that a serious question might be raised about the validity of the national election itself.
Imagine if such terror attacks were explicitly justified by the terrorists as a punishment for Bush's Iraq policy and as endorsements for Senator Kerry. In that case, a victory for Kerry would be tainted with the accusation that he had won through help from the terrorists, and at the cost of the lives of hundred or even thousands of American citizens.
On the other hand, suppose that there is a series of terror events in big cities -- the natural setting for catastrophic acts of terror -- right before the election. This would tend to make the heavily Democratic urban voters stay home on election day, while it would have far less impact on the heavily Republican rural voters near or in small towns, in which case a Bush victory would be tainted by the accusation that he, too, was elected by the terrorists.
If the terrorists believe that they can shape the policy of nations by using catastrophic terror to disrupt democratic elections, this would prove to be a greater challenge to our democratic heritage than any we have faced in our much embattled past. Nor is it a challenge that we can hope to rise to, unless, by some miracle, Americans stop believing that they are each other's enemy, and begin to focus on the enemy that we all have in common.